How to Start a Law Firm: Picking a Practice Area

Picking a practice area for your law practice is an important decision for many reasons including: avoiding legal malpractice; being able to pay the bills; and career satisfaction. Increasingly, clients expect their lawyers to focus their practices on a particular area of the law. This trend is based in part on the reasonable presumption that a lawyer who spends all his time in a particular area of the law is more likely to be competent on matters related to that area, than one who only occasionally deals with such matters. So, picking a particular area of the law and focusing your business model on that area has become a necessity for any successful law practice.

Picking a practice area, however, can be a deceptively tricky proposition. This is the case especially for junior attorneys who lack the practice breadth to comfortably find their niche. Nonetheless, regardless of how you go about making the decision, the key ingredient to a successful choice is identifying those key personal and professional traits that will distinguish your practice from the competition. Here are a few guideposts to consider when picking a practice area for you law practice:

Client Demand

Since your law practice is a business enterprise, the first consideration has to do with client demand. Simply put, the question you have to ask yourself is whether, given your preferred practice area, there is a sufficient client base to sustain your practice. In other words, will you make money from your practice area?

Initially, this question may be difficult to answer. But external factors may be helpful. For instance, in light of the recent recession, business bankruptcy lawyers are in high demand. Therefore, with the current economic situation as a major external factor, you may decide to do bankruptcy law. Likewise, the demographics in some locations make certain practice areas especially attractive. For example, Estate Planning may be a smart choice if your practice is located in an area with a large senior population, such as Miami, Florida.

But even without an obvious external factor, you may still be able to identify a high-client demand practice area by first choosing a broad specialty and narrowing it after a few years of trial-and-error. For example, say you are interested in civil litigation but not quite sure which specific area of civil litigation presents the most work. You could start out by declaring a general civil litigation practice and then shift to, for example, slip-and-fall when it becomes obvious after a few years that there is a significant market for slip-and-fall attorneys.

Experience

A second way of selecting a practice area is to tap into your professional experience. In particular, look to previous jobs for clues on finding a viable practice area. One upside to this approach is that you minimize your exposure to legal malpractice if you decide to specialize in an area that you have experience. You will understand the requirements of the particular area of law in which you have experience and be less apt to make a grave mistake based on inexperience.

For junior attorneys who do not have previous legal employment experience, look to your internships, externships, clerkships, and volunteer work for hints on finding a practice area. You can even look to pre-law school jobs for insight on how to find a professional niche. For example, if you worked in television, music or film production prior to law school, you may want to consider practicing entertainment law.

General Interest

Another less precise way of picking a practice area is to follow your general interests. Despite the absence of the formal choice-making process, picking a practice area based on your general interest could prove to be a very rewarding option and financially advantageous. Depending on your individual interests, you could develop a unique practice area that gives you exclusive reign over a particular clientele group (e.g., an equine law practice, or a practice that caters exclusively to vintners and wineries).

The obvious drawback to selecting a practice area based on your general interests of course is that the success of this approach will require a unique interest, lots of planning, and several years of nurturing a strong viable core group of clients to sustain your practice. But since you will be doing something you enjoy, this drawback may not be unbearable.

Educational Background

Another way of selecting a practice area is by matching your educational background with your legal practice. This method is especially convenient for attorneys with an advanced degree in a particular field or discipline. Intellectual Property law may be a seamless match for you, if for instance you have an advanced technical or science degree. Your educational background can also help you refine the focus of your practice making you more attractive to clients looking for a highly niche practice. By way of illustration, you could take your law license and an advance degree in molecular biology, and turn the two into an IP law boutique that focuses exclusively on inventions and patents derived from research in molecular biology. Here too, the more creative you are in using your educational background to distinguish your practice, the greater your chances for business success will be.

Personal Background

A parallel approach to the educational history model is the personal background approach where you base your practice choice on your life experiences and personal history. Here, for example, you may descend from a long line of farmers, in which case an agricultural practice focused on serving the legal needs of the farming community may be a natural fit for you. The personal background approach may have business advantage of providing you with an already-made network of potential client from which you can draw.

Conclusion

While there are no fast or hard rules on how to pick a practice area for your law firm, the successful choice will, as much as possible, distinguish your practice from the competition by considering and incorporating all five guideposts.